Equality and Equity

I once told a colleague that I didn’t believe in objective marking, and she enthusiastically agreed. “I don’t think it’s possible to be objective,” she said.

I told her that I didn’t think we should try to be objective, or even that objectivity is an admirable goal. “The world hasn’t been objective with our students, so we shouldn’t try to pretend there is a level playing field when we are judging their performance.”

She was puzzled by the assertion, so I told her that I don’t think we can judge the grammar of someone whose first language is English the same as we do someone who learned English as their third language. Likewise, if my student is a single mother from a rural or poverty-stricken background, works a labour job, and takes classes after work, then her situation is very different than the student who has perfect grades because their teachers gave them extra work for extra credit, their parents’ friends hired them for jobs that were useful of their career or finances, and they were able to go to private school and hire tutors to help with their essay rewrites. If my students who work for a living are unfairly targeted by police as people of colour while their peer is sipping wine with their parents’ colleagues at a private faculty affair, they should hardly be judged the same.

I am stricter in terms of grammar, and expect more literary analysis and understanding of Canadian culture from my domestic private school students, and worry less about deadlines for those whose families are in crisis. I expect my international students to understand more about how an aspect of the text might apply in their own country, to have a better grasp on colonization or western interference overseas, and overlook my domestic French immersion students who fall back into old formatting habits when quoting from our texts.

In terms of ethnic origin, Indian students sometimes use Indian English, since that was perfectly acceptable in some of their schools, Chinese students might forget what pronoun to use but have an excellent grasp of grammar once they are reminded of the rule, while Spanish students prioritize spelling. Nigerian students seem to come from an excellent colonial leftover system, so their writing can be excellent, and indigenous students from Canada are able to make a visceral assessment in how the Canadian justice system works. The domestic student has difficulty with the workings of colonialism, since they have only experienced it as a colonizer, even while they understand perfectly how to apply for funding.

Students with health issues might be expected to skip classes, while those whose spring break was spent examining the archeological sites of ancient Greece on a parent-sponsored holiday should be expected to keep up with their class responsibilities.

My colleague reluctantly agreed, although I could see the notion was unsettling. She was so accustomed to imagining that we could reduce inequality by applying standard equally that she’d forgotten about equity:

Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities. Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.  (Milken Institute School of Public Health).

This has been a fraught question in the west for many years, as the grotesque system of slavery was gradually dismantled and other inequalities in western societies began to be debated. Men stood in parliament and discussed whether women should have the vote, while white men installed a series of anti-black laws during the Jim Crow era in the United States. White authorities decided to take away Indigenous children in order to destroy their culture which they viewed as inferior, and Canada worked with the United States to have the notion of cultural genocide removed from the international definition of genocide. Once white women came into power, they tried to slam the doors on the women of colour who wanted to follow them, much as their own white fingers had been slammed in doors by men, and once all women were assured of their place in power structures they only reluctantly allowed gay people or those living with disabilities to join in their privilege.

As the early feminist movement made the radical statement that women can do anything a man can do after the first European war opened up jobs for women in factories, that slogan became prominent in the pursuit of universal human rights. The jobs previously presumed to only be possible to be done by men were opened up to women, until even to this day such simplistic notions of equality are enforced and written into policy.

Unfortunately, the world is not equitable to begin with, and so those who have traditionally been denied positions, the ability to vote, hold office, or even ride in the front of the bus could not simply be shoved to the front and made to perform. Without access to the Oxford University Library without a male chaperone, Virginia Woolf could hardly be expected to present a seminar on women writers as well as those for whom such barriers didn’t exist.

Society has options when addressing such concerns. They can apply their notion of equality to everyone and if a few marginalized people, who have been systematically barred from knowledge, training, and opportunity, slip through they can congratulate themselves on leveling the playing field. Their rationale for why more people of colour or the differently abled didn’t make the grade will likely be laziness or genetic stupidity. This methodology works to reinforce the same racism, classist, and sexist systems already in existence. Why are there no women doctors, we used to ask, only to discover that women were not allowed into medical school.

Another methodology is more complex. If those in power in the system honestly want to effect change, they can also acknowledge the systemic barriers people like them have placed in the way of the marginalized and then work to overcome that with a targeted equity. If women were denied from studying at a school which has the highest qualifications, then we can accept their equal qualifications from elsewhere. If a person of colour is still improving their English because it is their third or fourth language, then we may safely ignore certain errors when they are speaking or writing without considering them to be a result of stupidity or lack of training.

I had to defend a student’s grade when an email from the Arts faculty at University of Manitoba declared that one of my excellent students who’d been labouring for an A+ the entire term hadn’t earned the grade I had given her. They attached PDFs of two other exams so I could compare. Once I got past the affront to my professionalism, I looked at the other exams just in case I was wrong. I could see, once I looked, where the administrator had been duped. They’d seen awkward phrasing and grammatical problems in my student’s writing and presumed that meant she shouldn’t earn the higher grade. They had fallen into the trap of presuming that because a student’s grammar is weak, or their phrasing awkward, that they do not understand the material.

The other students wrote good exams, but their ideas were a regurgitation of class material. No spelling or punctuation errors marred their writing, but they had contributed nothing other than what I had given them. My A+ student used portions of the story we’d never discussed, connected class material in novel ways, and proved that she knew how to write a paper and had been paying attention in class.

I wrote to the Dean in defense of my grading a letter about how I understood their confusion but that I would not be budging on my grading choices:

I think I can see the Associate Dean’s difficulty now that I look at the exams again. Although my student’s grammar is not perfect, she actually discussed the stories in a much more in-depth fashion, and used examples—such as one of the character’s work in the sex trade—that we did not discuss in class. As well, her essays capture the main thrust of the stories instead of merely citing the way we talked about the stories in class.

I told my students to focus on three things for the exam: essay structure, information from the story that proves their argument, and what we discussed in class in terms of the history of Indigenous people in Canada. She did that well. Although her grammar is not the best, I think I have to stand by my grading.

Fortunately, that was the end of the matter, but the notion stayed with me. I still use it when I talk to my students about their work. There is no reason to judge a student’s ability merely on the basis of grammar—regardless of how easy it is to detect—any more than someone should judge an astronaut on how well they play cards. The astronaut can learn to play cards in their downtime on the spaceship, and my students will eventually have a better grasp of grammar.

Although we are makings some progress as a society whose stated aim is equity, there is still a tendency—which is perhaps unconscious on the behalf of those whose own privileged blinds them to the situation of others—to re-establish ancient systems of oppression. When Colleen was taking an English honours class in my department, her professor insisted on dividing the small class into two groups. Although I’m not sure we can call this deliberate, she divided the class into two groups along ethnic lines. Perhaps in her mind it made sense to separate the Asians and the whites, but she wasn’t considering either the optics or implicit racism of her decision. When Colleen asked her peers in the class if they’d noticed, people of colour had unanimously noticed. The whites were accustomed to ignoring how racial lines were still being used to divide people and said they thought it was a random error.

At a recent competition for best three-minute Master’s thesis presentation, fourteen of the eighteen presenters were international students. The remaining four were white domestic students. Out of the four prizes given, three prizes went to the whites. While I think the audience could agree on one of the selections, the one awarded to a professional older woman competing with new Master’s students, but her receiving the second prize stood out, at least in the row where I was sitting. She earned three thousand dollars in total, and the white woman who won the next prize—which amounted to a few hundred dollars—gave a quite bland presentation. To be fair, some of the international students’ presentations were too jargon-filled and specialized to understand easily, while others had accents and a facility with the language which made them difficult to comprehend. That didn’t represent the work the rest of them had done, however.

One presentation in particular, about the effect of colonization and capitalism on the traditional muslin industry of Bangladesh was clever, witty, and wide-ranging. Its presenter was relaxed, coherent, and her project sounded interesting. Four people I spoke to after the presentations were judged said they thought that was one of the best, although lost out to the white women. Another Indian woman gave a presentation on lake water remediation and phosphorous runoff from agricultural fields that showed promising research, and outlined the problems with the current system and how her research was meant to investigate alternatives.

The lone prize which went to a person of colour was that given to a man who had a lot of friends in the room. He won the prize for audience choice, which showed the audience either didn’t agree with the prizes that were to be given when they were voting, or merely liked the man. His presentation about brown bat hibernation was well done, thorough, and well put together. Another man, who was also white, gave an excellent presentation on media representations of manufactured events and responses. Although he didn’t win any awards, the four people I talked to thought he did an excellent job as well.

I think the judges—three white people from industry and the dean’s office—weren’t entirely aware that they were judging coherence based on the ability to understand an accent or follow the presentation about arcane material. They likely thought they were judging the completion on the basis of equal standards, although I would argue that such a stance is by its nature unequal. The international students can hardly be blamed that they learned English later in life and the flow of their language doesn’t match a local, which means that the criteria should be shifted to take content more into account. It doesn’t mean a free ride for someone who is less qualified—which is what we hear from racists all the time about equal hiring practices—but rather that we focus on aspects of the performance which matter and less so on those which are cosmetic.

This is perhaps easier to see—here in the west at least—when we consider the accommodations offered by accessibility services at my university. Their premise is that once the barriers to learning are swept away for students who have a disability which affects their performance, then the playing field is leveled. They provide interpreters for students who are hard of hearing, note-takers for those with learning disabilities or physical barriers, and quiet, monitored places to write exams for those who require a distraction-free environment. They have staff who can rephrase questions, provide extra time on assignments for students with anxiety or chronic illnesses, and counselors for those with mental illness.

Although that sounds as though the university is giving some students benefits that not everyone receives—and therefore is not equality—it’s worth considering that a wheelchair is not a benefit for someone who can walk. It allows someone who cannot walk to enjoy some of the same privileges as other students, but in no way compensates for the fact that their disability means they have to struggle in an abled world in order to compete with those who not only do not realize what their disability means, but who also might have an unadmitted prejudice which means they have to be better in order to win the same prize.

Ultimately, the decisions we make today either can further install age-old inequalities in an unfair system, or we can take the opportunity to make sure that everyone has an equal seat at the table. The resultant society is one in which we will be unable to distinguish equality from equity, and although we are far from that moment now, it’s worth striving for that desirable goal.

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Darning my Booties

Today I posted a picture on Instagram showing off my poorly realized darning work. I was repairing a pair of knitted booties which I use as slippers. One of my former students asked me why I didn’t buy a new one. I answered that they were made by my ex’s grandmother, and weren’t really replaceable in that way. I told her I was also trying to remember the skill of darning, since it had been years since I’d tried to repair anything that way. She said she understood that I was developing the skill, but I guessed that she didn’t know why I would bother to repair something like that.

It’s hard to explain, depending on the audience. For Christmas, Jackie’s grandmother would make the whole family knitted booties, kind of socks without a top, to use as slippers. The family would pay lip service to liking the gifts, and then throw them away as soon as they were out of sight. When I heard about their derision, I was really annoyed. Grandma bought the yarn, and spent the little time she had left forcing her arthritic fingers to knit something that might be useful for them, and the ungrateful family didn’t care.

Similarly, thrift stores always have a number of neglected, crocheted afghans hanging on the racks, which were made by some old granny and then donated to the store by the family. I have one as well, which I use as a cushion on my chair. It was a gift from granny to Jackie, and she didn’t like the colours. The frivolity of that is revolting. Granny has since died, but she’d laboriously made the gift only to have it rejected in favour of something from a sweatshop.

Once Jackie passed on the message that I liked the booties, grandma gave me several pairs. I was happy to hear that she knew her work was appreciated by someone at least. I have worn through one pair after another in the last fifteen years, and only have one pair left. That’s part of the reason I repair it. The old lady is gone now, and even if her family didn’t appreciate the thought she put into a gift, I am not quite ready to throw a perfectly serviceable pair of booties into the trash.

Their time will come, but while I am able to recover their use for another year or so, I will relearn how to darn and repair them enough to eke out some more time to appreciate the care the old woman was willing to lavish on others.

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The Waystation to the Dump

Many people do not realize that their house or apartment is merely a conduit for the landfill. They imagine that each thing they bring into their house to be valuable on its own, as if they intend to keep it forever. The possible exception would be household goods like cleaners and groceries. Those they know are fated to exit the back door and enter the waste stream. In fact, however, everything in their house has the same destiny. When they are moving in, as they struggle to lift ponderous furniture and boxes of books, as they gingerly carry in their lamps and laptops, they ignore the fact that each of those items are merely making a stop before they are deposited in the trash.

The new computer is cleaned and revered when it first arrives, but by the time it is replaced it is relegated to a backup, and finally, is thrown into a bin for e-waste. From there it is either buried or sent to a developing nation where it is broken down and its more valuable components and metals recovered.

In that way the house is like our body, with its entrances and exits and with how little remains of what we put into it. Some heavy metals remain in the body for many years, while others, like salmonella, are destined to have a short stay, but all of them treat the body like a way station.

This way of thinking about waste is important, for it serves as a reminder that everything we own, even the most valuable consumer item, is merely on short-term loan from the trash. The metals and plastics were plucked from the ground, processed into a momentarily distracting form, and then pitched back into a hole where we bury it again. This, what Lars Eighner called, “the transience of material being” begs us to reconsider what enters the front door of the house, and to carefully evaluate what exits in the trash.

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Journalists are Needed more than Ever

Although some might claim that we no longer need journalists, that the internet has given us access to primary sources which we can interpret for ourselves—“do your own research” anyone—I think we need them now more than ever. Those who declaim journalism as a field are sometimes merely disagreeing with the message, or are responding both to censorship of journalists who refuse to toe the party or state line, or have an older notion of a journalist as a reporter who goes out into the world and collects the stories from an investigation of material and interviews.

I think when people picture a journalist they think of someone on the front lines, someone whose accent is different from those they are reporting on, who is theoretically objective about what they are saying. With all the major media companies beholden to either state or corporate funding—with the exception of The Guardian—that type of reporting is not common in our media. For one thing, the corporate news world employs front people who interpret what the reporter has told them, and if they switch to the reporter in the field, the interpretation given is already sanctioned. CNN can scarcely be reporting on corruption within CNN, for instance, any more than Fox News Entertainment reported that they’d been fined for reporting lies and they’d supported their case by saying that no reasonable person would ever read anything they say as anything more than nonsense.

In Canada we have had a similar problem with our national broadcaster. Despite who is in government, CBC’s funding dwindles year after year, and if their reporting is too critical of the government, then their funding is cut still more.[i] Behind the scenes there is “client journalism,” as journalists are fed the party line with an expectation they will present it as a credible source.[ii]

With the corporate and government stranglehold over media it is no wonder that people have become increasingly suspicious of what they are seeing from traditional media services. This was greatly assisted by politicians declaring that any news they didn’t agree with was “fake news” and as claims concerning “alternative facts” came to dominate the story, people turned away more and more.

Into this partial truth-vacuum comes citizen media, where relative unknowns set up channels on YouTube or other services and purport to deliver reality for a click a time. Some of them are disgraced members of major media platforms like Tucker Carlson, or, increasingly, budding independent journalist hopefuls like Owen Jones, Novara Media, and The Young Turks. Their presentations, with green-screen backgrounds and interpretation of news clips and tweets from other journalists have much in common with the major platforms, and when they stray into editorializing the viewer doesn’t see much difference between them and the average pundit on the corporate channel.

Perhaps this loosening of the press credentials was necessary in an alternative media landscape, but it also proved to be a gateway drug which led to the latest iteration of how many people process media. They believe that they can merely go to the sources themselves. They follow major figures online, examine online evidence for wrongdoing or scandal, and set themselves as the judge in the court of public opinion. A particularly glaring case was that of the 4chan sleuths who decided the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombing was dragging its heels. They recruited others like themselves and began to pour through the footage of the scene. Alert for anyone who looked foreign or with a backpack, they quickly identified two undercover police officers and they had to be officially called off by the agencies, who pled that the cover of the two officers was now blown.

IDF found a calendar in Arabic, not a Hamas ‘names list’ at hospital

This type of hubris which leads the keyboard warrior to presume that they can winnow through the material surrounding an event better than the experts, and the arrogance which would lead them to make their proclamations online is precisely why we need professional journalists. Even though the system is flawed, and some journalists are biased individually, or their platforms are beholden to corporate or state sponsors, they are still professionals who are well aware that their anti-Pulitzer will follow them if they deliberately invent material. They have the potential to lose their career if found out, and in the days of online sleuths, they will shortly be found out if they claim that a calendar is a schedule of militants or that a video from an event is later found out to possess a different time stamp.

As well, in the welter of media they can sample, many self-styled investigators may not be aware that the platforms are silencing dissent and making sure that some voices are amplified more than others:

Meta’s censorship of content in support of Palestine adds insult to injury at a time of unspeakable atrocities and repression already stifling Palestinians’ expression,” said Deborah Brown, acting associate technology and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Social media is an essential platform for people to bear witness and speak out against abuses while Meta’s censorship is furthering the erasure of Palestinians’ suffering. (“Meta: Systemic Censorship of Palestine Content.” Human Rights Watch)

The journalists of today are no longer old-style reporters, going to the site of the event and confirming the truth of the matter. Like the online sleuths they can stay home and comb through most original footage available. They are now the arbiters of fact-checking, examining their sources and applying their critical reasoning to sources they have. Although the online sleuths and their many acolytes think they’re journalists now because they can access direct information, they’re not trained to recognized spin, to know which sources are more reputable, or have a historical relationship to the sources.

The media landscape has become even more dangerous now because so many people without good media literacy or even critical thinking skills think they can access the truth directly, as though a journalist standing between me and the screen means I won’t be able to see the screen. For every person hollering online that we can just go to Telegram to “see the videos,” there are thousands of tireless journalists who are trying to verify the source of the videos, who trace provenance and background of posters, and who try to get to the essential core of the information that the hungry world is rapidly devouring raw.

Those people say we can dispense with journalists, but in fact, we need them more than ever.

Works Cited

Barnett, Steven. “Journalists must not allow themselves to be used by unscrupulous politicians” The Conversation. October 25, 2019.


Bell, Warren. “Harper’s long, incremental crusade against the CBC” The National Observer, October 1, 2015.

[i] See Warren Bell’s “Harper’s long, incremental crusade against the CBC” The National Observer, October 1, 2015.

[ii] See Steven Barnett’s “Journalists must not allow themselves to be used by unscrupulous politicians.”

“Meta: Systemic Censorship of Palestine Content.” Human Rights Watch. December 20, 2023. https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/12/20/meta-systemic-censorship-palestine-content

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Judge Not or Ye Shall Be Judged

I rather thoughtlessly quoted the bible when I was talking to my friend about being gay. She has partially emerged from her closet—which is a fraught enterprise for her because of her religious background—and we were discussing the tendency of bible people to judge. Once she came out as gay they began to make their judgmental pronouncements. To suggest an oft-used biblical way to combat that mentality, I repeated once again the edict against judgments: Matthew 7:1 “Judge not or ye be not judged.”

I’d been careless about the quote before, especially when talking to particularly judgemental bible pounders, but for the first time—as I talked to my friend—I realized that the two parts of the quote were mutually incompatible. Not only was it far more focused on the second half of the sentence than the first,, but it wasn’t the interdiction against judgement that it pretended to be. Rather than instruct people not to judge, which was the way that I’d always used it, it was rather a hypocritical celebration of judgement and a threat of punishment. It wasn’t trying to encourage us to be good people, or to modify our behaviour as moral beings, but rather because god will judge us unfit and condemn us to eternal punishment.

This mentality will come as no surprise to anyone who knows such religious texts, for they are much more about fear and punishment than they are entreaties to be moral. In fact, their notion of morality is entirely about a prurient delight in what happens to those who get caught—think of all those who enjoy the idea of hellfire for others—rather than the effect of the bad behaviour or how it might affect the actor or others. Naïvely, I’d never noticed the expression that had tripped off my tongue a hundred times was actually just as morally bankrupt as the rest of the book. The passage goes on to be much more explicit: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” Rather than a moral caution, the quote doesn’t even reference some notion of the greatest good from Jeremy Bentham, or the Buddhist idea that good deeds makes the person. Instead, the passage begins to revel in what will happen to someone who doesn’t follow the rule.

The bible people will immediately claim that god is allowed to judge, and therefore the quote is not hypocritical at all. They would argue, although not explicitly, that judgement itself is not the problem, but rather who is doing the judging. Such moral slipperiness opens itself up to all sorts of abuses, however. Even in the world of the writers, caught between the daily grind of taxpaying and goat herding, there would have been those who would take advantage of the idea that judgement is fine for some.

If I think that I am better than another—as is all too common with bigots of all stripes—then there is nothing that expressly forbids me from judging him or her. It only prevents judgement between equals, and it is a rare person who can’t imagine themselves as superior to another as they embrace the legalistic wiggle room the rule allows.

As soon as I quoted the phrase to my friend, and claimed it forbade judging, I heard what it really meant for the first time. I heard the evil unction implied by the statement. I immediately advised her to cut out the second half, which was entirely about judging and therefore undermined the moral authority of the first half. Instead, I would shorten the quote to “Judge not,” and advise throwing the rest of the book away.

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The Choctaw and Irish Nations

Fifty percent of the Choctaw people had only just survived the forced relocation from Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana into Oklahoma (the aptly named Trail of Tears), when a member of the tribe heard about An Gorta Mór, the great famine in Ireland. Despite barely being able to provide for themselves in the barren land of Oklahoma, the Choctaw of Skullyville and the Choctaw of Doaksville donated three hundred and twenty dollars, or the equivalent of five thousand dollars today.

Perhaps because they were both oppressed by their colonial governments, both communities felt a kinship. The British had starved the Irish in order to take the cash crops for sale, and if the Irish refused, they would lose their land and future livelihood for arrears. The Choctaw had endured the forced relocation because European settlers, some of them Irish in fact, were taking over their land, and they were offered the chance to leave or be murdered outright. Perhaps because the Choctaw had so recently endured their own starvation that they didn’t want to wish that on another.

Whatever the emotional motivation, the gift resonated through the centuries. When the various nations in the South West were suffering under the yoke of Covid in 2020, and their federal government had abandoned them yet again, they reached out online. Once the Irish people found out that a fundraising effort had been launched, thousands of ordinary Irish people donated. The Choctaw gift had been famous in Ireland, and even nearly two hundred years later hadn’t been forgotten. Now that the cousins of the Choctaw, the Navajo and Hopi peoples were similarly being ignored by their colonial government in their time of need, the Irish gave back. Over four million dollars were raised, with hundreds of thousands coming from Ireland.

The two nations had met before, especially in the 1990s, such as when they both attended each other’s memorial walks which commemorate the memory of their respective peoples who died on the forced march, for the Choctaw, and the protest made by the Irish in 1848. State visits have continued since, and in 2017 a stainless steel sculpture of nine twenty-foot eagle feathers was set up in Bailick Park, Midleton, County Cork to acknowledge and thank the Choctaw Nation for their donation.

‘Kindred Spirits’ Sculpture, Cork, Ireland
A tribute to the incredible generosity the Choctaw Nation showed the Irish people during the Great Famine.


In September, 2020, the Iroquois National Lacrosse Team had not been invited to the tournament because organizers refused to recognize them as a Sovereign Nation. A particularly damning decision considering that not a single Indigenous team would be present for a game which is indigenous in origin. Once the reluctant decision was made to include them, the organizers claimed there was no longer a spot, thus effectively denying them again. In a show of solidarity and moral justice, the Irish National Lacrosse team gave up their spot so that the Indigenous players might compete.

In these dark days when the western colonial world has become cheerleaders for a genocide in Gaza while the same historical policies are visited upon the Palestinians, it’s worth remembering that in the past we made other choices. We do not need to be counted amongst those who didn’t care while a people were starved.

Let us not be like Charles Trevelyan, who administered the British government’s food aid programme. He said that “The judgement of God send the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson and that calamity must not be too mitigated [..] The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.”

Let us instead imitate the Choctaw people, who despite suffering greatly at the hands of the same colonizer greedy for their land, reached out when they saw another group of people starving. Their selfless action created a bond between nations that over a hundred years of colonial rule has not broken, and wrote a new chapter for the human species that we would be wise to remember and emulate.

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The Long Canoe Trip

When Biss and I decided to take his son on a canoe trip, I suggested a lake I’d gone to before. We would be canoeing in the dark, which we often did, and that lake afforded opportunities that other locations didn’t. For instance, Aaron had a terrible sense of direction, paid more attention to impressions than specific details, and would therefore have no idea that we were retracing the same path or going in circles. And that was exactly what I planned to do.

I wanted Aaron to have a grand adventure, although that wasn’t as easy canoeing near their house. Therefore, I decided we would make an adventure out of a rather mundane canoe trip, much like parents make hiding places from blankets and chairs in the living room. A child’s imagination is a caregiver’s best ally, and with only a little prompting I knew Aaron would have the trip of a lifetime.

We put the canoe in the water near where we parked the car, across from a small beach. Then we canoed along the shore and then across the lake toward the now-vacant beach. Aaron had no idea where we were going, and in the dark, he had little sense that we weren’t going in a straight line. Once we arrived at the beach, which I skirted closely for effect, we canoed to a kind of peninsula which stuck out from shore in the narrow part of the irregularly-shaped lake. We pulled the canoe onto the shore and told Aaron we needed to portage to get to another lake. We carried the canoe some thirty metres until we arrived on the other side of the peninsula, and then set out again on the farther part of the same lake.

Aaron’s attention was such that he was sure we were in another lake, and that it had been difficult to get to. We canoed to the far end of that lake, and then began to follow the small stream which fed it. The banks became closer and the trees overhung the water, all of it contributing in Aaron’s mind to a voyage up the Amazon. Once the trees began to crowd the canoe, we pushed them to one side and kept going, until finally too many logs choked the stream and we turned around. Aaron was more than done by the creek by that time, for the closeness of the bank and the thrashing of small animals in the woods at night, contributed to a sense that we had really gone off the map.

The way back was longer, naturally. We followed the other side of the lake, keeping as close to the bank as possible and telling Aaron about possible logs or rocks in the water that he needed to watch for. Then we went back across the lake to our earlier portage pull-out spot, and hauled the canoe to the other side of the peninsula. I told him it was time for us to rest, and I pulled out some matches and began to gather stones. I bade him to pick up sticks and before long we had a fire flickering under the pine trees on the hill. We sat on the ground talking about the remoteness of the woods and pondering what staying the night would look like if we needed to. Finally, I doused the fire with mud and we clambered back into the canoe to go back to the car.

We crossed the lake again, and then followed that bank until we were opposite the beach. Then I crossed to the beach and reminded Aaron that we were retracing our steps. We followed the edge of the lake from the beach to the car and then we were ready to go home.

Although the entire adventure didn’t take any more than two hours, for the lake was very small, Aaron still mentions it. Our voyage of dozens of kilometres in the dark—although it was more like two or three kilometres in total—is still burned into his mind, although that has much more to do with his imagination than anything that we did.

When I was young I remember hiking to the back field with my brother Blake, and how, at six years old, the area we called the black woods were frightening enough that I feared stepping off the trail. On one occasion we walked around the perimeter of the field and I saw, glowing in the late spring, a weed- and grass-strewn path angling out of sight but promising delight if we were to follow it. I wanted to take the path, but Blake said we didn’t have time. Nonetheless, that enduring image has informed many of my ways of thinking about both imagination and a child’s perception.

Aaron’s fantastical canoe trip in the dark is not so different than any of our experiences in life. We are constantly being confronted with the mundanity of wearing a path from work to home, even while our imagination tugs us to one side, begs us to notice the unknown and to live for that exact moment. We think that a successful trip is one which goes in a straight line from goal to goal, but in fact life consists of detours, mystery, annoyances, delight, arduous moments, the light of a fire with friends, rest, and stories. We meet people for a short while before they are gone, but those moments are no less important than the arrival. In fact, the arrival is often a letdown, although hard won and eagerly anticipated. The voyage is the crucial part in the adventure, and arriving is just more taking out the garbage and sweeping the floor after the real show is over.

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Tesla Uber

I never pondered who was driving for Uber until I saw a Tesla with an Uber sign on it waiting outside the university. I realized that I needed to re-examine my presuppositions. I had presumed that most people who drove for Uber needed the money and most Tesla drivers were rich.

I guessed that Uber drivers were desperate enough to join Uber’s rigged game because they either didn’t have formal training or their certificates were not accepted in Canada. Some might also have another fulltime job and Uber was their side hustle, but that still pointed to a lack of cash. A recent article in the Globe and Mail claimed that most Uber drivers made an average of eight dollars an hour—once their downtime was calculated—and in 2022, the Uber company took 27.9 per cent of the cost. I wondered where that left my Uber driver.

On the Uber website, they advertise that a driver can rent a Tesla from Hertz for 497$ a week, excluding what I am sure are many fees. Although the driver might get to feel like a wealthy person, that still fits the narrative of the desperate, cash-strapped Uber driver. Perhaps such a driver would expect to charge for the premium rate since they had a fancy car, and Hertz would be making bank off the person’s naïveté that they think they will be able to compensate for the rental and still make enough money on the side. I was reminded of those high school graduates who pretend to be big shots as they are delivered to their graduation in a limousine. Fifty dollars can rent the limo, and by sharing the cost, a few graduates can arrive as though they are celebrities for as low as eight dollars each. For an Uber driver’s hourly wage.

The other possibility is that the Uber driver is a Tesla owner, which means I would have re-examine everything I believed about Tesla ownership. I thought Tesla owners were rich. They either had enough disposable income that losing forty to a hundred thousand for a car was worth the cache of driving a Tesla, or people who were wealthy enough that they could buy whatever car was popular and not think about the cost at all. I find it hard to believe that either person would be driving their Tesla for Uber. The rich Tesla driver might have fallen on hard times, like in the American movies, but I could not imagine them humbling themselves enough to cater to another’s whims. That notion is further undermined when we remember that they could merely sell the Tesla and live from that money for as long as a year, depending on their spending habits.

There are a few other possibilities. The Tesla owner might occasionally lend their vehicle to a friend, and that friend decided to improve on the situation by earning some cash on the side. Or the spoiled child from a rich background decided to abscond with the family vehicle. Even as the parents glow with the impression that little Johnny will grow up to be rich, they are none the wiser about how he makes his pocket money. As well, the Tesla might be stolen, and like anyone else, the thief needs the extra cash to pay for rapid charging. In Winnipeg, they could scarcely get away with their car, for the chargers between Winnipeg, Calgary and Thunder Bay are famously scarce.

I will likely never know the answer to the Tesla Uber riddle, but I can at least confirm that I am missing vital information about either Teslas, their owners, renters, or the amount of money an Uber driver can expect to earn.

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The Man Who Broke into Prison

Harrol was a city guy. He’d gone to university and played his part in the corporate drama. He had a house and a bland family, and his mother who’d come to stay with him. According to her, he did nothing correctly, and even his wife would join in heaping ridicule on his work, his hair, his muscles. According to them, he was only good when he was signing household cheques.

Harrol’s business was prisons. He was responsible for building new wings in the main prison, and for developing guard schedules which saved money and still monitored the whole facility. He sourced food from local farmers, and encouraged the prisoners to make their own garden plots. It was both an efficient machine and a way of improving the mental health of the prisoners.

But Harrol had a rival in the industry. Nedoy was connected to the president, and had the ear of wealthy corporates. Although his previous investments had been in schools and hospitals, Nedoy figured there was more money and less complaints when dealing with criminals. The municipal jail he’d built was well received by the local government. Harrol didn’t like what he heard about how things were on the inside for the prisoners, however. He came up with a plan to prove Nedoy’s nefarious practices as well as produce publicity for his own prison.

He began to correspond with a local criminal. More of a thief than a mastermind, Dunre was known for his recidivism. Dunre agreed to Harrol’s plan and before long Harrol was creeping around outside the municipal jail and Dunre was hanging from a low window ledge on the second floor. Harrol climbed and they passed each other as Dunre, promising to return in a few days, jumped past him to the ground and ran into the night.

Dunre was honest about wanting to return, but he wasn’t dependable. As he was walking past an open shop door, instead of closing it and going on his way, he reached inside and took a jacket from a hook. The shop owner was just about to close, and when he came back he noticed his jacket was Dunre’s shoulders a few paces down the street.

He called the night guard, obviously, and soon Dunre, because he had been convicted so many times and now was charged with escaping, was sentenced to four years. The sentencing began immediately, and even while Harrol was arguing with obstinate guards about his meals, Dunre was settling into a cell in Harrol’s prison.

Unlike Harrol’s prisons, those from Nedoy were not efficient or well planned. The guards didn’t have regular schedules. Many of them were untrained country boys who’d lost their way in the city after a drunken night at a party. They merely checked forms and looked for uniform numbers. They had no idea Dunre had escaped, and when Harrol began to argue about that, other prisoners tore off their nametags and joined in. The guards merely arbitrarily assigned numbers in the chaos and Harrol disappeared into the system.

When Nedoy was proven to have engaged in corruption, and another president took office, Nedoy’s jail was turned over to Harrol’s estate to manage. The widow kept up with the paperwork and business demands by help from her daughter, and although they wondered where Harrol had gone in the night, they presumed he’d been waylaid and killed.

Once Harrol’s widow took over the jail, the prisoners were marched into the exercise yard and tagged. Harrol was foremost among those who declared his innocence, but only when he recognized the new guard and called upon him, did the man look closer and see his old boss. He called several others, and although some claimed a trick or said they would get in trouble if they showed the system could be corrupted so easily, most expected a reward as they released Harrol.

Harrol returned to his family, settled the accounts which had accumulated in the meantime and divested himself of the industry. Much to the dismay of his family, he sold the large house and expensive car, released the animals in his private zoo back into the wild of their respective countries, and moved a caravan to a spot beside a lake.

When a former prisoner who’d had Harrol’s help getting hired in broadcasting asked about his choices, Harrol only said that while inside he dreamt of a place near the water where he could fish. The interview deteriorated from that point forward as they began to drink and throw their lines, and when they were found, still drunk, laying on the shore his wife wasn’t surprised.

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Haters Gonna Hate

Comments about haters, or people who have no contributions other than to heap ridicule onto another’s accomplishments, are common now, but the phenomenon is not new. I would venture a guess that even when the first stone tool was smashed out of rock there was someone standing to one side, someone whose greatest accomplishment was rudimentary control over their bowels, who had something negative to say or unsolicited advice to offer.

Oddly, the greater the accomplishment seems to draw the most amount of unsolicited commentary. This is especially noticeable when trying to do something difficult. A certain amount of animosity accompanied my PhD when I was in the program, and even when it was finished I was treated to questions from colleagues at the university about whether I had actually finished the degree. Even while building my cabin in the woods there were those who questioned whether I would enjoy the bush, whether I knew enough to build a cabin, and whether I would merely injure myself and end up in hospital or worse. No accomplishment drew as much animus as when I was building my boat, however, although when looking closely at the source, the negative commentary came exclusively from land lubbers.

I built my twenty-foot wooden sailing boat in my sister’s garage, and although she was kind enough to host both me and my most recent project, she also treated her neighbours to the sight of my labours. I would often be working in the closed garage, and suddenly the main door would be lifted and my sister would be standing with one or two mute neighbours or friends who would stare like visitors at the zoo. Understandably, I found their silent gawking less than conducive to my work, but it didn’t happen a lot, and they were merely strange. I would say hello, and then they would continue to stare, and finally address my sister and leave. About half of them, however, would offer pithy statements about boatbuilding, and those are the hater comments that I reference above.

Over and above the oddness of the social circumstance, some had advice to offer. One man said, as I was truing up the ribs, “That’s not the way you’re supposed to do that.” I asked if he were a boat builder, and when he said he wasn’t, I laughed and said he must know then. Another man, looking over my partially completed hull with the huge gap in the planking, said, without a hint of a greeting, “That boat will never float.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond. I looked at the boat, trying to see what he saw, and said, “Not at the moment, but I have great hopes for the future.” He said nothing. Then, I added into the lengthening silence, “Luckily, I don’t get a lot of rain in the garage.” When he wandered off, I continued working.

There were many of these instances. One man stood looking at my boat and then starting talking about one ill-fated attempt I apparently needed to know about: “There was a man in Nanaimo who built his own boat. Ferro-cement. The first time he took it out he hit a rock and sunk it.”

With so little context, and no other social cues, such as saying hello or introducing himself, I had nothing to respond to other than his utterance. I wasn’t building in ferro-cement, but rather wood, and I had a hard time discerning what I was meant to take from his anecdote. I finally responded, “What about the Titanic. I hear that didn’t go well.”

“What? What do you mean?” His eyes narrowed at my statement.

“Sorry. I thought we were sharing disaster stories.”

Normally I never troubled myself about the people my sister inflicted on me while I was working. A few of them merely stared or talked to her, and without being addressed, I just kept working. When I went to visit Tara at work, however, I was to have a more in-depth encounter with Kevin.

Tara told Kevin that I was building a boat, and he asked me a few questions about it, and then he said, on the basis of the slimmest of descriptions, that it would never work out. A sailboat is difficult to build, and I would never be able to build a functional one.

In some ways, he was echoing my own concerns. I was no boat builder or designer, and yet I’d taken the task on. I knew that the boat might not track well on some points of sail, and it might not even be possible to sail it. I also knew that I could drill a hold next to the skeg and mount a motor, so I would still be able to enjoy my boat. My response to Kevin was doubled, however.

“That’s true. It could be that I will screw it up, but at least I will have tried to build a boat.” Then, jumping to the natural conclusion, I began to presume. “Of course there are those people who fancy they are boat people because they own a boat, but all they are is a loser with twenty thousand in their pocket. Any loser with twenty grand can go into a shop and buy a boat, but to build one, however poorly, you have to know what you’re doing.”

Kevin left the lunch table rather abruptly, and afterwards Tara asked me how I knew that he owned a boat. I’d guessed by his insecurities. That was the case with many of the older men who complained that I wouldn’t be able to build my boat. They had dreamed of building one themselves when they were younger, and they had neither the skills, ambition, or intelligence to do so, and now that they were confronted with someone who was doing it, they could only try to tear down what I was doing. When Tara said that Kevin had paid twenty thousand for his boat, I laughed. That was merely a guess. I was going by how he wished to appear as a big shot, and how little his shot really was. The figure I’d come up with was twenty grand. Small wonder he was angry.

The boat’s reception on the coast was completely different. Marcel helped me assemble the outrigger to put the boat in the water, and he was gushingly complimentary when he saw the way it floated right at the waterline. When I was moored and working on it at Plumper Cove, the park ranger made several positive comments about the accomplishment.

When I came into docks in the different seaside towns, people would stroll over to look at the boat, ask me if I’d built it, ask about the design, and in other was show an appreciation that I’d never seen on land. The workboat people, shrimpers and salmon fishers, were especially complimentary. They repaired their own wooden or fibreglass boats, and they admired the frugality of my build and the stability of the multihull. Even the long haul deep sea adventurers, the round the world sailors, gave me a thumbs up, and some of them took pictures which they later emailed to me. one round-the-worlder particularly liked the design. It was an outrigged main hull with the bow and beam of a Marshallese sailing canoe, the stern of a caravel in order to weather a following sea, and the Bermuda rigging of a yacht. I had several live-aboards come up to me with questions as well; they would talk about how they’d built the boat they occupied some twenty years before, and grinned to see that the tradition wasn’t dead. There were still people willing to risk the naysayers and haters, to carve their own path from the conservative pavement such people had poured over every living thing. One man was reading on his sailboat where we shared the cove at Mink Island commented, when I rowed back from the shore where I’d gone exploring, about how pretty my boat was. He said that every time a gin palace roared past, my boat “pirouetted” around on its anchor rode.

Perhaps the most meaningfully compliments came from children. My boat was bite-sized, and for them it made sailing seem possible. It was immediately apparent what the different elements on the boat were for, and it was small enough that they could imagine themselves sailing away from the world of adults into a pirate story. Two children came up when I was repairing some gear in Campbell River dock, and they sat beside me on the planks to ask what I was doing, how I’d built the boat, and in other ways expressed their genuine admiration. They stepped aboard at my invite, peered into the narrow cabin, and walked on the deck while holding the rigging. Only when their weekend dad stepped down from his plastic rental gin palace did they scatter. He plunked himself on the dock to join them, but that only served to send them running. He said a few awkward phrases, and then joined his friends and their open bar.

I take from the boat experience, as well as several others, the lesson to ignore and avoid the haters. There are enough people with real insight and knowledge about what we are doing to realize what a labour of love looks like, and who realize the haters will always be sidelined by people with real creativity, ambition, insight, and varied interests. Despite the barking of the haters, the caravan of people who want to be left alone to pursue their own dreams, however doomed or short-sighted, will move on and forget them.

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